WHEN ATTENDING A luncheon seminar, you meet with a senior executive from one of the companies on your target list. After some small talk and the exchange of business cards, he suggests you contact his secretary to arrange a meeting.
Two weeks later, you're sitting in his office. The meeting goes exceptionally well and runs much longer than the scheduled 45 minutes. As it draws to a close, you feel you now have a clear understanding of many of the critical business issues and suggest a few ideas. The executive appears impressed and indicates there is a great opportunity for your two companies to co-operate.
Everything is looking good as you head back to the car. There is an understandable sense of satisfaction as you recall encouraging comments about the existing vendor being too complacent and the fact that your own company could obviously add value.
The executive's parting words have put a spring in your step. His management committee will meet within two months, and he'll call soon afterwards. You head back to the office thinking business development isn't so bad after all. When colleagues ask how things went, you describe the situation in glowing terms and perhaps even allow a little exaggeration to creep into your account.
Next day, you send an e-mail to thank your contact for his time, summarise a few points, and say you look forward to hearing from him in two months. Nothing happens.
After eight weeks, though a bit disappointed, you decide to send another e-mail, but again get no response. You tell yourself the executive must be busy and these things never go as fast as you want them to.
Two weeks later you call, only to find your contact is out of the office and that the best you can do is leave a voice-mail asking for an update.
After repeated attempts, you finally get to speak 14 weeks after your initial meeting. You start by explaining that the reason for the call is to follow up on those previous discussions.
“Remind me what we talked about” is not the reply you expected to hear, especially when it leads on to an explanation of how things came to a head about three weeks ago.
"Quick solutions were needed, and we decided to stick with the existing vendor,” the executive tells you. “We’ve just finalised the new terms, but I'd still be interested in talking to you if anything else comes up, so keep in touch.”
The point, of course, is that the prospective client’s level of interest was much lower than you thought.
While your enthusiasm remained high, his quickly diminished, which can be put down to any number of reasons. Perhaps he went on holiday right after your first meeting or had to make a presentation to the international board. Maybe he was recruiting a key manager or restructuring a department. Whatever happened, it was comparatively more important than reviewing the points covered in your meeting.
The lesson to remember is that if there is the potential for future business – two months or two years down the line – your primary objective is to ensure the client maintains a high level of interest. The following ways may help:
Maintain telephone contact
At the end of a meeting, tell the prospective client you would like to think over the topics you had discussed. Ask if you can call to clarify any points which are unclear. Assuming the meeting went well, they will probably agree, and this gives the chance to ring a few days later – even if there are no real gaps in your information. You can still ask a couple of supplementary questions and take the opportunity to highlight some of the things about which they seemed most enthusiastic.
Send an e-mail
Three or four days after your phone call, follow up with an e-mail. Don't just thank the person for their time, but summarise the key issues and explain how you might go about addressing them.
Meet other people
During the first meeting, try to identify other parties who might be involved in the project. Take the initiative by asking about their roles and suggesting that you might see them, rather than waiting for your contact to make the first move. Timing is key.
You have to put the question when you can tell your contact’s enthusiasm is high. If you have separate meetings with other people in the organisation, make sure to give your initial contact some feedback about how things went, while reminding them about the benefits you can offer.
Demonstrate your interest
When there is no apparent possibility of working together soon after your initial meeting, sustain interest by sending articles, books or invitations to seminars. Even if the topic is not directly related to your area of expertise, it is a way of creating broader value for the target client.
Some sales professionals make the mistake of either pestering prospects or sitting back and waiting for replies. It is best to agree on the frequency of contact and establish this when the level of enthusiasm is high. The responsibility for making contact is yours, not the client’s.
As well as building commitment, try to check how genuine it is. Many people can mislead you unintentionally by projecting more enthusiasm than they really feel. Commitment involves being prepared to take action, so you can test it by asking a person to do something, such as sending you extra information or agreeing to a follow-up meeting. These activities aim to keep the client thinking about you so that you can keep building rapport, trust and a case for being preferred over the competition.
In sustaining enthusiasm, the key is to create value with each contact. Otherwise, you are not making progress. Therefore, develop a strategy for each prospective client and remember that it's the salesman's responsibility to be proactive.
TIPS TO WIN
Get the timing right
Most of us tend to naturally rush things when we see the chance to land a significant deal. We get ahead of ourselves in an attempt to show how service-oriented and responsive we are, or how keen to fix an agreement. Be careful not to let your instincts take control in this respect, as you may put yourself at a disadvantage. If you submit a proposal prematurely, it may not cover everything or show signs of being rushed. Besides that, key factors may change, or your pricing parameters may become known to competitors. Also, you are reducing the time you have to pre-sell and build credibility with the client. Therefore, submit any proposal as close to the deadline as possible and ensure it includes the most up-to-date commercial information.
In many situations, people choosing between suppliers have already made a decision before the final presentation. At that point, they simply expect the preferred supplier to put on a credible performance and avoid major mishaps. This doesn’t mean that your performance in a final presentation should be anything less than first class. However, it does mean that you should invest as much energy as possible in pre-selling and establishing a firm level of trust and credibility. The main point of pre-selling is to prepare the ground for a positive outcome by persuading the relevant decision makers of your company’s value at all the points of their buying process.
Share a great idea
If you have ideas which have the potential to change the client’s thinking about key business issues or offer solutions to long-standing problems, think carefully about when and how to communicate this information. Present ideas too early and they may be passed to your competition, particularly if you are up against an incumbent. If you put forward a proposal not long before a deadline, you increase the chances of grabbing attention and making a winning impression. Don't reveal your hand too early.
Developing trust between the first contact and the final presentation depends on taking action every step of the way. Meet all of the key influencers, introduce some original ideas, build alliances with third parties who may be able to help, carry out small assignments to demonstrate willingness and expertise, and provide case studies. Most importantly, in whatever you take on, aim to under-promise and over-deliver. Set clear timescales and high-quality standards, then find ways to exceed them.